Huffs and PUFFS But Doesn’t Blow the House Down

29 Jun

Read my review at Puffs

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Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

Have you ever heard a joke that everyone else is laughing at, but you just don ‘t feel in on it? This is how I felt at New World Stages production of Puffs. An alternate view on Harry Potter. I had seen all the movies, but still lost a lot of the humor as the references were very specific most of the time. I wish the show used broader jokes and more universality to make it appealing to a larger audience.
Puffs is told from the point of view of the HufflePuff clan that exists in Harry Potter’s School of magic. They are viewed as the worst group to belong to out of the four teams that exist in the institute. Enter, new HufflePuff, Wayne wearing a T-shirt and Jeans. He is the least assuming wizard in the school, but desperately wants the accolades that Harry…

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Laura Bush Killed a Guy is Less than a Perfect Crime

26 Jun

Reviewed by Michael Landes

 

    As Laura Bush explains in the third act of the play, the title “comes from the Family Guy…It’s a costume party and the man in the couple is dressed in a pink dress and pearls and the visitor asks, Who are you dressed as Peter? and Peter says, I’m Laura Bush. Then the woman, who I believe is his wife, and is dressed as a man with a big tire track up her front, says, And I’m the guy she killed. And the visitor says, That’s right, I forgot, Laura Bush killed a guy. And the wife says, Yes, she did. Laura Bush killed a guy. And then Peter says, Laura Bush killed a guy…” But the crux of the play is not really the titular event of Laura Bush’s vehicular homicide (as later explained, vehicular manslaughter was not a crime in Texas when her crash occurred). Really, the show revolves around her experience of both coming of age in Texas and being the most visible woman in the country.

    The three-act show begins each act with a monologue about Google’s autofill suggestions when one enters “Laura Bush”. Laura Bush’s Cowboy Cookies (available upon entering the theater) are first, but soon after follows “Laura Bush killed a guy”. This monologue varies slightly between acts, and the reenactment of the car crash which follows similarly varies. In the first act, she is a murderer; the second, a drunk driver; the third, a well-meaning, distracted teenager. Other details of her life also change between acts, such as her first time meeting “Georgie”, her relationship to Mike Douglass (the crash victim), and her behavior as a teenager. What does remain consistent is her veneer of optimism, polished “Southern hospitality”, and her seemingly genuine good intentions. Even the murder was done to please her family.

    A solo show requires a great solo performer, and Lisa Hodsoll is above and beyond the best Laura Bush impersonator on New York stages right now (regardless of how much competition she may or may not have). Her measured control of her body and gestures, her perfectly soft Texan accent, all spoke to her ability as someone who had researched, studied and now fully inhabited Laura Bush. Her performance stood out as an accomplishment that alone makes the play worth seeing.

    The play itself, on the other hand, lacks an essential energy; like Laura Bush’s car, it achieves high speeds on the ground, but never launches off the ground. Laura Bush’s carefully cultivated facade seems poised to fall from her first moments onstage, but the show never delivers on this promise. Instead, potential energy is built up and never released. The de facto climax of the show is her recounting of 9/11 which, though it is a powerful and effective piece of writing, does not quite deliver the catharsis and freedom that the show needs. For example, Ms. Hodsoll’s choreography rarely took her outside of standing in front of or sitting in the lone chair on stage (her back never touching the back of the chair). Like the extremely limited blocking, and in part because of it, the play remained similarly uptight and staid.

    Despite the lack of a much-needed release in the show, there remained a great deal to be praised. Ian Allen’s text for Laura Bush maintained a wonderful balance of lyricism and realism (the prologue, which features a complete appropriation of her recipe for cowboy cookies, is especially exciting), and the technical direction, with projections and spots indicating flashbacks to the actual car crash, was highly professional and effective. But though each element was as skillfully assembled as possible, the overall work was no greater than the sum of its parts. The high quality of each part almost saves the play, but not quite.

    Why did Laura Bush kill a guy? The play offers many answers, but does not quite provide a reason to ask the question in the first place. Many do their best to provide such a reason throughout “Laura Bush Killed A Guy”––Ms. Hodsoll perhaps most of all with her bogglingly impressive impersonation. But this effort makes the play’s inability to take flight all the more regrettable. At the end of the day, Laura Bush killed a guy. No more, no less.
“Laura Bush Killed A Guy” plays at The Flea Theater at 20 Thomas St. through July 8th. http://theflea.org/shows/laura-bush-killed-a-guy/

 

God Save Queen Pam Needs Saving of it’s Own

25 Jun

 

Reviewed By Jara Jones

 

       

    After the lineage of the British Royal Family succumb to a tragic end, the UK begin a feverish search to find a lasting heir.  They stumble upon a brash-talking American with a flair for the dramatic and a gift for song. Later, our plucky protagonist meets a rival from the English elite who scorns their unconventional ways and then begins a covert plan to incriminate the new monarch.  After being assailed by the tabloids for their public blunders and romantic scandal, the newly crowned sovereign struggles with the lasting implications of their unexpected title. Finally, peace is restored when Our Majesty reveals the felonious acts of their enemies and then abdicates the throne, leaving the wise and unflappable helpmeet (who has a tidy, clandestine affiliation to royalty) to assume the position.  

    This summary above is word for word and beat for beat the plot of the 1991 John Goodman film King Ralph.    God Save Queen Pam copies it to the letter, re-imagining the fish-out-of-water comedy as a mad-cap, exaggerated, one dimensional tale resembling a Christmas panto.  Buckingham Palace represented with a bed more akin to a freshman twin mattress and characters clad with the merest attempt to distinguishing class and bearing (an Archbishop denoted by a simple purple pageantry sash, for example.)   I really wish they had committed to the full tropes of British pantomime (how much more delightfully silly and engaging would it have been to have had the lead be a woman dressed as a boy, to be coerced by the cast to cheer the hero and boo their nemesis)  Instead, the musical finds itself at odds between making slim gestures towards more detailed characterization versus being jam-packed with sloppy camp.

 

    Erin Murray Quinlan (the show’s lead, and creator of the its book, music, and lyrics) clearly has done her research as far as depicting the day to day struggles of a Queen.  Even her character names show an apt wit and further potential for greater comedy. For example, Pam’s staunchest foe is named Fenella de Dieul (an unsteady performance by Mari Minette Linder, who seeks to straddle the line between broad and naturalistic and accomplishes neither) , which translates to “introverted, cerebral, and easily anxious” and “of God” respectively. All that detail is squandered with a slap-dash script which favors stale pop culture references and quick, easy jokes.  Fenella, rather than putting up a pious, genteel front, broadcasts her villainy without an attempt to hide her vainglorious ambition.

    The highlights of the musical are Carolyn Light as Col. Eleanor Ainsley (captivating and fully realized in her role) and the scenes between Pam and her not-so-subtle crush, Maj. Jaimie Toben (David Ventura in a disarmingly charming, vulnerable performance).  Not the painfully broad moments when she tosses pick-up lines at him with frenzied desperation like a barfly ten minutes away from closing time; the rare opportunities where Quinlan as a playwright, composer, librettist, and actor allows herself to deliver honest, unguarded moments.  See this show for the number “Once for Yes” alone, a sincere, utter delight of a song which feels so out of place amongst the slapstick.

          Future productions of this musical must consider the following question: does the heart of the story reside in fleshed out, earned humor and characters whose personality consists of far more than a hard-on for Winston Churchill?  Or, should the musical run gleefully headlong into precise, flamboyant, stylized camp, removing or altering its more mannered characters (like Ainsley and Toben) as well as more stoic songs “Think of England” and “The Shamrock, the Thistle, and the Rose”.  Either choice could produce a wonderful show.

God Save Queen Pam is produced by Tawnydog Productions and runs until July 29, 2018 at The Players Theatre (115 MacDougal St.)  

www.godsavequeenpam.com

Midsummer Madness is a Success!

24 Jun

   Reviewed by Michael Landes

 

            The start of the summer this year was rainier and chillier than usual, and because of the rain, the June 22nd opening performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Carroll Park was delayed. For a frightened moment, I considered the thought that the performance might not occur––after all, the show relied on electric lighting barely protected by some trees, and enough of a downpour could prevent the use of those tools altogether. Thankfully, the rain ceased, and the play lit up the park, literally and figuratively.

    “Midsummer” is often roughly divided into three threads: that of the lovers, that of the mechanicals, and that of the fairies. This neglects Theseus and Hippolyta, whose military drama occurs entirely offstage and is conveyed to the audience through two brief scenes. Their inclusion is mostly important because it is they who launch the play with a somewhat dark conversation on military conquest, only to be interrupted by Egeus, the frantic father of Hermia. The leads are rapidly introduced by Egeus and in a matter of minutes, we enter the magical forest, controlled by the fairies, where the bulk of the action takes place.

    The fairies, who meddle with the lovers and the mechanicals to comic ends, have some of the driest passages of the play, with long conversations about Puck’s exploits and the conflict between Oberon and Titania surrounding an Indian changeling. Regrettably this production did little to solve these problems; the choice to make Oberon into a bellowing tyrant and Titania into a half-blind witch did not help to speed them along. The understandable intent was to add a darker, more ominous element to the play, but the tonal shift was too great to justify as such.

    This being said, the acting was uniformly high quality, and was especially remarkable in the attention paid to relatively small characters. Pete McElligott as Theseus and Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy as Hippolyta were true lynchpins of the production, opening and closing the show with a sense of authority and a clearly defined relationship often lacking from portrayals of those characters. Also of note were the mechanicals, especially Brandon Dial as Snug and Justin Gillman as Starveling (doubling as Egeus as well). Their performances in the Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe were incredibly good, and they, among the rest of the mechanicals, established their scenes as ensemble efforts. Another massive standout from the mechanicals was Corey Whelihan as a truly electric Bottom, whose every appearance prompted show-stopping laughter and applause.

    Smith Street Stage has been producing Shakespeare in Carroll Park for almost a decade, and their familiarity with the space of the park showed as they used all the area around and behind the audience, especially in the lovers’ quarrel scenes. This was a wonderful touch at times, as when Demetrius (Alex Purcell) would sprint an entire lap around the sizable seating area for the audience. At other times, the technique regrettably masked parts of dialogue from being seen by the entire audience, including the beloved “You bead, you acorn” monologue. The intention was clear and worthwhile, but the execution lacked in practical consideration. Another slight drag on the production was the music direction, which relied largely on pseudo-Elizabethan acoustic instruments instead of a broader palette of sound. Visually, the production was roughly updated to present-day, and so these moments of song were notably out of step with the rest of the show.

    “Midsummer” is a difficult play to get wrong, and a difficult play to get right as well. But the element which speaks best to the quality of this production was the number of children in a nearby playground who stopped playing and watched, loudly laughing during Bottom’s best scenes (including one of the longest and best death scenes for Pyramus I have seen) and happily mesmerized by the lovers’ reconciliation. Even with my few criticisms, one cannot ask for more than this from any play, especially Shakespeare. Like the potion of the play, the show enchanted the audience and the kids, some of whom had likely never experienced Shakespeare before. Regardless of experience with “Midsummer” or Shakespeare, the production perfectly satisfied us on our own midsummer night.

 

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” plays now through July 15th at Carroll Park, on President St. between Court St and Smith St, Brooklyn. http://www.smithstreetstage.org/playing-now/

Ivanov Splits our Focus

15 Jun

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

 

Anton Chekhov is one of my favorite playwrights. Thus, I was more than excited to see Ivanov, brought to us by the Cherry Orchard Festival. Yet, my enthusiasm was short- lived because splitting my focus between the translations and the actions on stage was too difficult for me and I was lost much of the time.

The story begins with the audience being told about Ivanov’s money troubles, his sick wife Anna Petrovna, and his deep depression. We are told as an audience that his wife is a Jewish woman who came from a wealthy family, but once she converted to Russian Orthodoxism, she was disowned by her family. Now she is dying of Tuberculosis unbeknownst to her, and Ivanov must take care of her, his debt, and his uncle, the Count, who lives with them. Doctor Lvov, who takes care of Anna is also berating Ivanov for being cruel and short tempered with Anna who he tells Ivanov, is dying of Tuberculosis and must go to Crimea to get better, but he is both unwilling and unable to pay for her treatment. Needing an escape from his troubles, he flees to his friend Lebedev’s house to get some space.

That is not to say that the production is without merit. The cast is clearly talented. It’s a shame that the translations were so quick, that one could not capture what was happening on stage and understand the dialogue at the same time. Unfortunately, I felt like an outsider left in the dark for most of the evening. With better translation techniques, this could have have been a gripping piece of theater. Sadly, we are unable to sustain the energy it takes to divert our attention back and forth from the stage to translations.

Ivanov plays now through July, 17, 2018 at City Center 131 West 55th St.                                                           https://www.nycitycenter.org/pdps/ivanov/

Little Rock Wins Big!

15 Jun

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

 

There are things in history we should never forget. The Holocaust. Vietnam. Little Rock Arkansas Little Rock by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj provides us an unforgettable musical that shows just how far or not far we have come in ending racism between blacks and whites, This play leaves an indelible mark on you that makes you want to shout out and scream in rage about the senseless violence that the Little Rock nine faced as they tried to integrate into an all white school.

In 1957, President Eisenhower and the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. However, the governor of Arkansas did not agree and failed to provide the military support to enforce the court’s decision. As a result the Little Rock nine went through hell in their attempt to go to school. Finally, President Eisenhower, ordered troops to move into Little Rock to enforce integration and finally the black students were able to attend class, but not without consequence. And the rest they say is history.

The cast is phenomenal. Several members sing a capella and their voices cut to the core bring the audience to tears several times. The struggle and pain that they covey are tangible. Rebekah Brockman is stunning in her turn as Peggy Sue. Watching her journey from an optimistic girl filled with hope for a new world into a woman who realizes the brutality of racism is both palpable and heart breaking. When her dreams get crushed so do ours. Justin Cunningham provides the much needed comic relief that gives us a momentary reprieve from the high pitched tension that feels unending and overwhelming. And why should we get a break? These students did not.

My only slight quibble with this otherwise profound production, is that they keep referring to to the Little Rock nine. This means that there were nine black students who tried to integrate. However, this show only had six actors, playing the nine students. Everytime, the play referred to nine students, we are taken out of the reality of the moment because six does not equal nine. If they spent so much money on this show, why not get three more actors to play the nine students and sustain the reality of this tension filled world that we are in?

That is a minor flaw in this powerful [production. As you can probably tell, I’m riled up by this show. It’s not just part of our past history, it’s still going on today. And with our political administration, how far back are we going to allow this country to slide? I think we should be scared, no terrified! (I have tears in my eyes as I’m writing this) Go see this show in order to never forget their hard won struggle and to make sure we do not let our country regress back into the dark ages. Up stage center there is often an always illuminated door. It’s a door of hope that as a unified people we will walk hand in hand through, a symbol of progress that we need now more than ever!

Little Rock plays now through September 8, 2018 at the Sheen Center 18 Bleeker St www. https://sheencenter.org/shows/littlerock/

The Fourth Wall Poses some Questions

14 Jun

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

 

Plays about plays can be hard and often tricky to understand. However, Theater Breaking Through Barriers does an above average job making this play, The Fourth Wall by A.R. Gurney accessible and timely, in every sense of the words. Though it wavers at times, this is a mostly enjoyable production.

Peggy has redecorated the living room and her husband, Roger, can’t stand it. Peggy’s usual exquisite taste was overcome by a mysterious lapse which caused her to redo the room as if it were a stage set. Everything faces one wall, the “fourth wall,” which she’s left bare and which is really the audience. But what lies beyond this infamous “fourth wall”? These existential questions permeate the play

The cast does a fine job bringing this meta heavy production to life. The highlight of the cast is Stephen Drabicki, who plays an eccentric drama professor brought in to solve the ominous riddle of what lies beyond the fourth wall His stylistic choices all add up and brings great comedic life to his scenes. Nicholas Viselli does a fine job as Roger, who is definitely trying to save his marriage.

Unfortunately, there is some over-acting in this play that bogs it down. This play has music in it by Cole Porter. Vaselli and Drabicki have stellar voices, which makes them a delight to listen to. Yet, the vocal talent of the entire cast is not equally matched.

Again, what mostly hurts this production, has nothing to do with a lack of talent on stage. It is the play within a play conundrum which causes some confusion for the audience There are many dated political references that obscure what could be a timely piece of theater. This is no fault of the production team, as they tried to update the script but were thwarted by the Gurney Foundation. Still, the parallels are there, but it’s a shame they can not hit the nail directly on the head.

Still, Theater Breaking Through Barriers does not disappoint. There usage of differently abled artists show just how talented they are. Disability is NOT on display here! Rather, it’s just a group of very capable actors shining due to their incredible prowess as storytellers. They deserve our support and we should give it to them in abundance. This is definitely a piece of theater that matters!

The Fourth Wall plays now through June 24, 2018 at A.R.T. NY 502 W 55th St. http://www.tbtb.info